Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Faith: Through the Ashes

(Part of a continuing series. Previous post here, first post here.)

Ostek burned.

"We were too late!" Evelyn cried as they crested the last hill before the city. They'd seen the smoke: rising from Ostek as it had from every last village and town they'd passed on the way. They'd hoped that it was from the surrounding fields, an attempt by the invaders to starve the city while the walls still held. Every settlement between Ostek and the mountains was in flames or in ashes; bodies littered the streets, left to rot where they fell. Fir, in all likelihood, had been spared only due to its remoteness and obscurity. But Ostek was larger, and guarded; and the burning of the settlements must have cost the invaders - the Beckoners' mercenary army - time.

Seeing Ostek burn, they knew that it hadn't been enough.

For a moment Evelyn despaired: "If we'd been faster," she muttered, "if I hadn't delayed us with my illness - if, if, if!..."

As she calmed herself, Jared peered toward the city. "Look at the keep," he suggested. "There's smoke rising from the rest of the city, but hardly any there. No more than you'd expect from cooking-fires and other normal sources."

Evelyn squinted as she tried to see what Jared was saying. "If we had a spy-glass, it would be easier to tell... but yet, I think you're right. Perhaps the keep still holds, somehow. If so, we must go there, see what can be salvaged. If the army is inside - lacking only leadership, perhaps - then the day may not yet be lost..."

It wasn't a good plan, but it was the best one they had. They considered implementation. "We can't go in through the city gates," Jared said, and Evelyn nodded, agreeing. "They'll be guarded by the enemy, and I doubt they'd let us through unmolested. Neither of us are in any shape for climbing city walls, either, so..." Evelyn seemed momentarily lost in thought.

"There's another way," she told Jared. "The keep that holds my father's palace is nestled against the city walls. Most traffic passes through the two gates between the keep and the city proper, but there is another gate - not a secret, just a pain to get to. It's up a very steep, zig-zagging slope, so it's useless for anything but foot-traffic, and a bother for that. Still, it's better than trying to sneak through a city filled with-" she winced "-a marauding mercenary army paid by genocidal maniacs."

"Yes, the rear gate's our best chance," Jared agreed. "If we can avoid enemy patrols..."

They encountered not a single living soul on their trek across the city plains to the keep's rear gate. Their unspoken surmise was that the enemy was too busy inside to care about any passers-by; a surmise backed by the smoke billowing skywards and the terrible clamour rising from within Ostek, a noise growing louder as Jared and Evelyn approached. For half an hour, the wind turned; a grey, ash-filled haze covered the two travelers, forcing them to use their (already somewhat redolent) clothing as masks. With the smoke came a dreadful charnel smell, making them use their blanket as a blinder for their horse which, with its more sensitive nose, took the smell even worse. Evelyn seemed near to tears several times, despite her improvised mask; Jared looked ready to join her, and not only for the ashes irritating his eyes, either. Mass death was something neither of them had learned to bear.

Nightfall neared by the time they reached the keep's gate. Jared had been forced to walk for half the long climb up the path for fear of tiring their horse. Evelyn, her legs still weak and prone to failure, was just as exhausted from the simpler effort of staying atop the horse. Neither was in good condition to face down the guards upon the gate, though the revelation that there still were guards loyal to the rightful rulers of Ostek lightened their spirits enormously. They argued until the sun passed over the horizon, trying to convince their interlocutors that they were who they claimed to be; the guards were themselves clearly dead-weary and afraid, in no state to leave their posts and approach Jared and Evelyn closely enough to see the truth for themselves.

Finally, the sally-port beside the main gate cracked open, and three men exited, two of them torch-bearing companions to the third. That last approached Evelyn and Jared, the latter leaning against the horse for support, and exclaimed in surprise. "Praise the Maker!" he cried. "It's you, it really is! Evelyn! Jared!" He rushed forward, abandoning the company of his guards, and embraced both. "We will take you in," he said, nearly babbling, "and tell you of the disaster that happened in your absence, and you will in turn tell us of the fate of the expedition. And then, then, then..." he sputtered out.

"And then you will flee," he told them, his tones empty of their previous manic energy, "For when the sun sets over the horizon two days from now, I have little doubt that the keep of Ostek will fall to the enemy, and I, along with the rest of her defenders, shall fall with it."

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